One of the unique features of Western Civilization is the integration of faith and reason, and how both are about the search for truth. Faith and reason compliment each other; faith prevents hyper-rationalism, and reason prevents complete blind obedience to a faith.
So argues Dr. Samuel Gregg in his book Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization. Dr. Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute, and he joins NC Family Communications Director Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast.
Dr. Gregg argues that Western Civilization needs both faith and reason to thrive. But in our public discourse, we can disregard reason for sentimentalism. “Sentamentalism is this sense that reason is trumped by feelings and emotions.” This is highly problematic because “it reflects a loss of a sense that God is divine reason. This means that God gets reduced to a type of celestial teddy bear […] who does nothing but affirm us, who tells us how wonderful we are and never judges us or tells us that we’re doing something wrong.”
But we can also restrict the search for truth to the sciences, and attempt to block out faith. If we restrict truth to empirical inquiry, then “there’s a tendency to say that if that’s what reason is, then religion is clearly about subjectivity; it’s really not true in the same way that science is hard truth.” And that can be dangerous as well.
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Samuel Gregg dive deeper into the unique relationship of faith and reason in Western Civilization.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. It’s tempting to look around at our culture and begin to despair that our best days are behind us, and that we’ve wandered too far off the right path to ever get back again. We have a guest with us today who is uniquely qualified to help us sort through how we might be able to do that. Dr. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute. He has a doctorate in moral philosophy and political economy from Oxford, and a new book out: Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization. He’s here to talk to us about what he calls the genius of Western Civilization, and to offer us some hope for a way forward.
Dr. Samuel Gregg, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
DR. SAMUEL GREGG: Thank you for having me on. It’s good to be with you.
TRACI GRIGGS: Let’s just start off with what is meant by Western Civilization. Is it primarily geographical or is there more to it than that?
DR. SAMUEL GREGG: Well, I guess in one sense there’s a geographical dimension because we tend to think of the West as North America and I guess Western Europe. Now when you think about it, that doesn’t work because there’s plenty of countries that are outside that particular geographic orbit: a country like Israel, a country like Australia, which are clearly Western countries but aren’t part of that geographical zone. So clearly it goes beyond just geography.
My argument in the book is that there are basically three dimensions to Western Civilization. The first is the commitment to rational inquiry into truth, and that I think is very important because it means that we take reason very seriously. The second is liberty. It’s freedom in the sense of freedom from unjust coercion, but also freedom in the sense of the higher flourishing that comes when we live the good life, when we pursue the virtues. And thirdly, I argue, another unique feature of Western Civilization is this particular integration of faith and reason that was achieved by the two faiths in the West, by which I mean of course Judaism and Christianity. Now, it’s not that other civilizations don’t have inquiry into truth. It’s not that other civilizations don’t have a regard for freedom. The point is that this unique synthesis of rational inquiry in search of truth and a commitment to freedom—but also this particular synthesis of reason and faith—that’s what I think makes Western civilization distinctive.
TRACI GRIGGS: So why do you think reason and faith are so important and they enhance each other so well?
DR. SAMUEL GREGG: Well, I think they’re really concerned with the same thing. The thing that they’re concerned with is truth. Reason is about the search for truth. We have reason so that we can know truth, and then we can decide whether we’re going to follow it. But faith is also about truth. Faith is not a question of just sentiment; faith is not just a question of just feeling; faith involves answering questions about religious truth. Is there a God? If so, what is this God’s nature? How does this God reveal himself? Those are questions I think which are ultimately concerned with religious truth. So that’s one thing: they’re both concerned with truth. The other thing is that they also help to reinforce and clarify each other. Reason provides us with ways about answering complicated theological questions, like the problem of suffering. Faith, however, also reminds us that reason’s horizons go beyond the scientific—beyond things that we can measure—and that faith points to the types of big questions—about the meaning of life, where we come from, where we’re going—that reason also has something to say about. So there are lots of different ways in which they compliment each other.
They also stop each other, I think, from going off the reservation. Faith prevents reason from degenerating into a type of hyper-rationalism. At the same time, reason prevents faith from falling into the trap of fideism, where faith becomes a question of just complete blind obedience without any reflection about what it is we’re being asked to do. So there are lots of different ways, I think, in which reason and faith enhance each other. And I think that becomes more apparent when we see the connection between the two start to disintegrate. So for example, if you say that faith is influenced and shaped by reason, then that tells you that there are certain things that should never be done in the name of religion, such as blowing yourself up or flying planes into buildings or doing all sorts of terrible things. So that’s an example, I think, whereby throwing reason out the door gives particular types of faith a type of basis for going ahead and doing terrible things. I think that’s one thing.
Another thing I think is hubris. Hubris on the part of those who recognize that reason is a very, very powerful tool, but also make the mistake of thinking that our reason itself makes us into something like God. Saying that, “I am more or less God myself because I have reason and because I have the capacity to shape, change the world around me.” People become so confident in reason’s capacity to do certain things that they forget that we’re also human and humans make mistakes, humans make errors. The fact that we have reason doesn’t mean that we stop making errors; we make errors all the time. So I think these are some of the ways in which the two things have started to become detached from one another. And I think in the end, what it really reflects is a loss of the sense of God as divine reason. We talk about God as divine love, which he is. We talk about God as divine mercy, which he is. But for example, the Hebrew people and the first Christians, they also clearly understood God as being logos. Logos is the Greek word for divine reason. And when you lose the sense that God has this reasonability about him—that He’s a rational being; He’s not a type of irrational creature that we find, for example, in the Roman and the Greek mythology. When we recognize that God is in fact divine reason Himself, that changes the way we think about reason and faith and how the two things relate to each other.
TRACI GRIGGS: So you cited some extreme examples about what happens when we don’t apply reason to our faith. But there are a lot of less extreme ways, right, that we make mistakes as people of faith? Could you talk a little bit about that?
DR. SAMUEL GREGG: I get asked that question a lot, and I think today that the problem we face in much of the West is not the type of fideism that we’ve seen in some parts of the Islamic world. I think what we see is more or less the opposite of that, which is what I call sentimentalism. Sentimentalism is this sense that reason is trumped by feelings and emotions. We see this all the time just in our common language. How many times do we hear people say things like, “I just feel that…” when they’re starting a sentence? I say, “I’m not interested in what you feel, because I’m interested what you think.” That’s what reasoned conversation and discussion and inquiry are about. It’s not about feelings; it’s about knowing the truth. And you can only know truth in its fullness through rational inquiry.
So I think this is actually a major problem we find in so much of the West today; our public discourse is saturated with sentimentalism. Even within religious communities, we hear this sentimentalism everywhere. And it’s very problematic because I think it reflects a loss of a sense that God does have this dimension of logos—that he is the logos, that He is divine reason. This means that God gets reduced to what I call a type of celestial teddy bear—a teddy bear who does nothing but affirm us, who tells us how wonderful we are and never judges us or tells us that we’re doing something wrong. The scriptures provide us with true knowledge of the nature of God, and that’s something that we read, so we’re engaging our mind as we read through these texts. And that’s important because what that tells us is that God is certain things, and He’s not other things. So we learn, for example, that the God of the Hebrew people is not like the gods of Greece and Rome. So the God of the Hebrew Bible is rational, just, creative, involved in human history, and has given us freedom. That’s very important, very important that we know this information about God. And when you understand the nature of God Himself, then you can make clear decisions about what is religiously true and what is religiously untrue.
TRACI GRIGGS: So how did the relationship between faith and reason get so out of balance, do you think?
DR. SAMUEL GREGG: Oh, I think that there are lots of historical reasons for this, which I talk about in the book at a great deal of length. But I think it’s a couple of things. I would say one problem is that we have tended to reduce reason to the sciences—to the natural sciences, to empirical inquiry. We’ve said that this is the only way in many respects that we can know what is true. And that’s a problem because scientific truth can’t answer philosophical questions, theological or religious questions. The scientific method can talk about things that we can measure and that we can arrive at some type of empirical understanding of, but it can’t resolve or understand those questions which are non-empirical, which are non-scientific.
And I think for quite a long time now, there has been this collapse of our understanding of reason into science and the empirical method. Which means that there’s a tendency to say, “Well, if that’s what reason is, then religion is clearly about preference, subjectivity; it’s really not true in the same way that science is hard truth.” And so when you see that starting to happen, you see science become more and more closed off from philosophy and theology. But you also see religion and faith get more and more closed off from philosophical questions, from the application of reason to religious problems and religious questions, with the result that religion gets, as I said, pushed into the corner of, “Well that’s just feelings, emotions, sentimentalism, and that has nothing to do with this hard reason over here.”
TRACI GRIGGS: What about hope? Is there hope that we’re going to be able to walk ourselves back off of this ledge?
DR. SAMUEL GREGG: Well, that’s a good question and many people have asked me that. And one of the things about my book is it’s different from many of the other books about the West. Because most of the books about the West today, what they basically say is, “It was wonderful, but it’s done; it’s finished; it can’t be recovered; woe is us.” The other type of book is, “The West was fundamentally evil from the very beginning; we should just be happy to see it disappear.” And my argument is that neither of these positions is adequate or true. I don’t think the West should go away. I think the West contains enormous cultural, intellectual, philosophical, religious, economic resources, which we benefit from today and which we should want for the future.
But I also don’t think decline is inevitable. Because I think in the end, people recognize that God is in fact love, mercy, but also divine reason, and we can have confidence that this God is true and that reason can know truth, then we can make a choice for civilization. Because in the end I think civilizations rise and fall because people choose certain paths. We can choose civilization or we can choose decadence. The choice is in our hands, and as long as that choice is truly in our hands, then we have every reason to believe that at different points of history you can see a change. You can see societies move away from decadence and much more towards the path that’s more faithful to the genius of the West.
TRACI GRIGGS: Alright, well what a fascinating conversation. We’re just about out of time. I just want to tell our listeners one more time the name of your book, and it is, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization. So, Dr. Samuel Gregg, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.
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